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Virtual Reality, the iPad, Michael Abrash and Neil Stephenson

The list of people in the computer industry I'd consider a hero is pretty short - the usual suspects: Jobs, Woz, Gates (especially after he left Microsoft) and a few others. It's not really a hero-driven industry, which is something I like about it.

Two of the people who shaped my youth, however, are John Carmack and Michael Abrash. Carmack needs no introduction for anyone who grew up with Wolfenstein, Doom or Quake, and Michael Abrash was the "other" developer on Quake, as well as a lot of other stuff like natural language processing.

I suspect it's no coincidence that both of them are now working on Virtual Reality - Carmack at Oculus VR and Abrash at Valve, where he recently published a talk on the state of VR, and how much further he thinks it needs to go before we hit the sweet spot.

  • Compelling consumer-priced VR hardware is coming, probably within two years
  • It’s for real this time – we’ve built prototypes, and it’s pretty incredible
  • Our technology should work for consumer products
  • VR will be best and will evolve most rapidly on the PC
  • Steam will support it well
  • And we think it’s possible that it could transform the entire entertainment industry

Even tho I'm not a gamer, I'd love to see what they are doing 24 months from now.

The part of his talk which caught my attention even more, however, is the second page, where he talks about his inspiration

Then I read Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, and it all started to come together. When I thought about what it would take to build the Metaverse, I estimated that I had at least an idea of how to implement maybe 80% of it with existing technology. I was too optimistic – I'm still waiting for my first VR swordfight – but still, Snow Crash made me realize that networked 3D virtual worlds were ripe to happen.

Stephenson has long been a favourite author of mine - at least, his older stuff was. Two of his books I enjoyed the most, and which I think have strong parallels to now, are Snow Crash (VR and persistent virtual worlds) and The Diamond Age - which has a device which could easily be seen as a future iteration of the iPad, as well as ubiquitous use of matter compilers - aka 3D printers on steriods.

The book contains descriptions of various exotic technologies, such as the chevaline (a mechanical horse that can fold up and is light enough to be carried one-handed), and forecasts the use of technologies that are in development today, such as smart paper that can show personalized news headlines. Major cities have immune systems made up of aerostatic defensive micromachines, and public matter compilers provide basic food, blankets, and water for free to anyone who requests them.

I've read the book a couple of times now, and every time I read it, I think of the work that Fraser Speirs is doing using the iPad in schools in Scotland, or the OLPC project tried to do (and might have done, they have fallen off my radar) - allowing kids to learn, work and explore at their own speed. We have a long way to go before we get to the Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, but it's going in the right direction rapidly.

This isn't new tho - Arthur C. Clarke predicted (and possibly influenced) the creation of satellites. I wonder which piece of sci-fi, just a bunch of words on a page now, is going to change how we work and play in the not-so-distant future.